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Grow: How academic Rob Henderson spun a side hustle into a primary income by sharing his ideas
The Grow interview series is designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We invited, the writer behind to offer insights as a faculty fellow at University of Austin who says Substack is a primary source of income and a testing ground for ideas and his forthcoming book. Rob shares how writing from his distinctive point of view, communicating authentically, and sticking to a disciplined writing schedule developed a paying subscriber base in the thousands.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Straightforward discussions of human nature, psychology, social class, pop culture, and cultural trends.
How does your Substack fit into the rest of your professional life?
Substack started out as a side hustle when I was in grad school, but it has become one of my primary sources of income.
Who reads your publication?
Uncommonly curious people. About 30% of my paid subscribers are women and 70% are men.
What do you uniquely offer readers?
I was born to a homeless mother in Los Angeles. I grew up in 10 different foster homes in California. I barely graduated high school. I enlisted in the military when I was 17. These experiences inform and supplement my readings, observations, and understanding of ongoing sociocultural trends.
I synthesize useful and interesting information about human nature, drawing from modern empirical psychology as well as from philosophy, history, and my own unique point of view.
How do you see the role of your Substack alongside your work at the University of Austin?
The ideological rigidity of media and higher education has inevitably motivated smart and talented people to pursue novel experiments in the world of ideas. Although many people within legacy institutions claim to be forward-thinking progressives, they have been surprisingly hostile toward anything new. But gradually we have seen prominent academics launch their own Substacks, and UATX will continue to attract outsize interest and attention from bright scholars and students.
“Gradually, we have seen prominent academics launch their own Substacks”
What’s your content strategy?
Cadence: I publish two to three times per week.
Types of posts: Accessible reviews of research in empirical psychology, cultural commentary informed by data and firsthand experience, and personal reflections about social class and upward mobility. Once a week, I’ll post a roundup of links and interesting findings. I also take detailed notes on lectures and information-dense podcasts, which I share with paid subscribers.
Growth by the numbers
Started Substack: April 2022. I launched an earlier version of my newsletter in January 2020 and imported my readership to Substack a little more than two years later.
Total subscribers: 32,850
Paid subscribers: 1,516
Date turned on paid: Immediately after moving to Substack
When I moved to Substack in April 2022, I imported about 14,000 subscribers from my old newsletter. At that point, I had 85,000 Twitter followers. My writing had been published in various outlets, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and Quillette. I’d gotten some attention for coining the phrase “luxury beliefs”—ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.
Meaningful growth moments
Overall, there have not been any especially striking inflection points. For me, the key to growth has been communicating authentically and sticking to a disciplined writing schedule. My goal over the next few months is to begin sharing exciting news about my forthcoming book.
Getting started: I was working on my PhD thesis and my forthcoming book.
In June 2022, I wrote a post titled “Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols.” It was a transcript of a talk I’d delivered at Nudgestock, the world’s biggest behavior science festival. It was widely shared and attracted about 400 new subscribers.
In September 2022, I wrote a post titled “I Have Yet to Hear a Satisfactory Answer For Why Adults Care What Young People Think,” which got some attention on Twitter and led to more than 100 new subscribers. By this point I was posting about two or three times per week and had shared some positive testimonials on my About page from prominent readers including Naval Ravikant,, , and , among others.
In November 2022, I summarized several lines of research on “The Male-Warrior Hypothesis” to explain the peculiarities of human male psychology, which drew more than 200 new people to subscribe. I then discussed this essay with Chris Williamson. Chris and I are good friends and he wanted to do a deep dive on that Substack piece, which turned into a great conversation on his popular podcast Modern Wisdom.
Today: Two additional milestone posts were “Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ,” discussing why the preoccupation with intelligence is misguided, and “The Age 30 Crisis and Seasons of a Man’s Life,” revisiting a classic book on adult developmental psychology.
Why did you choose to go paid?
I’m happy to support other writers I enjoy reading, and I’ve always had a paid option. Once I understood the reach of my writing, I realized I could potentially earn a living as a writer. Still, I regularly offer free upgrades to readers who are unable to afford a paid subscription. I grew up poor and spent much of my young adulthood broke, so while I enjoy getting paid for my work, I try to make it accessible to everyone.
Once I understood the reach of my writing, I realized I could potentially earn a living as a writer.
How do you use your Substack to gain traction on ideas?
If I notice readers responding to particular ideas, I make a note of it and consider expanding on them in additional posts. I plan to write a “luxury beliefs” book at some point and have considered serializing chapters on my Substack. Paid subscribers will get a sneak peek at my current forthcoming book, which is due to be published in February 2024.
What is the sharpest piece of advice you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
I haven’t had any wild moments of insane growth. By sticking to a schedule and communicating honestly, I’ve built a devoted readership. Some tips: First, keep a consistent writing and production schedule so your readers know when to expect new content. I’ve published something every Sunday since January 2020. The only way to keep up a steady flow of output is to write about topics you actually care about. Second, understand that growth generally tends to be slow at first, so don’t get discouraged. A year after launching my original newsletter before Substack, I had 7,000 subscribers. A year later, I had 14,000. A year after that, I had 28,000.
Who’s another Substack writer you’ve turned to for guidance or inspiration? is a model of good science writing, and unfailingly delivers sharp insights on societal trends.
Choose your subject (usually within your academic field): Rob keeps a regular beat of posts by writing about topics he actually cares about, from his unique life lens.
Workshop ideas: Rob notices when his readers respond to certain ideas and will expand on them in additional posts, deepening the reader-writer relationship and creating potential chapters for his book.
Stay consistent: There’s no secret sauce to rapid growth—sticking to a disciplined writing schedule will create consistency, which in turn ensures steady growth over a longer period.
What questions do you have for Rob that we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Tyler Bainbridge, Melinda Wenner Moyer, Leslie Stephens, Becky Malinsky, Tim Casperson, Marlee Grace, Gergely Orosz, Anne Kadet, Category Pirates, BowTiedBull, Justin Gage, Noah Smith, Carissa Potter, Jørgen Veisdal, Anne Byrn, Nishant Jain, Michael Fritzell, Glenn Loury, Erik Hoel, Jessica DeFino, Mike Sowden, Elizabeth Held, Jonathan Nunn, Polina Pompliano, Michael Williams, Judd Legum, and Caroline Chambers.
If you’re inspired by Rob and want to start your own Substack, you can get started here: